Three weeks in a David Attenborough documentary - #3


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August 30th 2013
Published: August 30th 2013
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The snow covered tops of the mountains seemed close enough to touch as we flew past. They rose around our plane on all sides, our shadow showed up clearly on the snow below. The pilot turned sharply and we suddenly entered an opening, blue water and a little town at our feet. Following the sharp turn was a sudden descent onto a short air-strip, I didn’t think we were going to make it. But our teeny little plane touched down without a hitch and we were in Isafordur, Westfjords.

We stayed one more night in Reykjavik after exploring the South Coast. We spent a lovely evening with Hofi, a friend of Pete’s who lives in Reykjavik with her partner and their new baby April. We had an amazing vegan feast prepared by Hofi’s mum that blew our minds after a week and a half of pasta cooked on a single burner. We even managed to fit in a wander around the charming city, which was dappled in sunset light (this was around midnight). The next morning we headed to the domestic airport for our flight to the Westfjords where everything proceeded at an astoundingly casual pace. We checked in about ten minutes before the flight was due to leave and then wandered out the building past strict and thorough security. Oh wait, I mean past zero security. There wasn’t a metal detector, bag scanner or security guard to be seen. Our seats were in row 9, and we joked “Haha, it’s probably row 9 out of 10.” It was row 9 of 9.

Despite being a little hair-raising, the flight was actually stunning and we made friends with a local musician who was heading to Isafordur for a festival that was being held that weekend. We talked animatedly about Icelandic politics and then he invited us to come see him play harmonica with his Icelandic blues band that night! Oh friendly Icelandic people.

We had booked a random house in town and weren’t expecting much, but it was amazing! It was kooky and oddly decorated but had amazing views over the fjords and onto snowy mountains. The town itself (the biggest city in the Westfjords, with a whopping 3,000 people) was perched on the edge of the water, wrapped with mountains and dotted with the gorgeous colourful corrugated metal cottages that were typical of Iceland. That night we went and saw our new friends band play. The entry was expensive and we hesitated, what if they were crap? But we weren’t disappointed, they rocked out the blues with a mind-blowing guitarist, our friend wailing on the harmonica, a singer who had a charming sneer and sang the whole time in Icelandic, a long and lean bass player who never cracked a smile and a pianist who scrunched up his eyes with concentration and played solos that would melt your face. Hello, Isafordur.

We spent the next few days taking it pretty easy after our non-stop touristing on the South Coast. The Westfjords are a pretty unique area, way up in the north-west it gets freezing and in the winter only has one hour of sunlight a day. Centuries of ice melting and growing has broken up the land into strips like hundreds of fingers, creating beautiful fjords and dramatically carved mountains. We spent a lot of time driving around, which was beautiful and slow. We were stopping a lot to take photos and there are no bridges in between the fingers, you have to drive up, around and back down each one. The scenery is pretty much indescribable, but quite different from the South Coast and equally as amazing. There are adorable tiny fishing villages dotted around the sparsely populated area, which we sometimes drove through and sometimes stopped in, whether to go sea lion spotting or to eat waffles with rhubarb jam. All along the roads are tiny houses, sheep and goats (that run onto the road frequently), and little wooden shacks where long strips of fish hang to dry. The driving was beautiful, albeit slightly terrifying, with long tunnels through the mountains. These tunnels are not concreted and safe-looking like the ones I’m used to, but are rocky and dripping and dark and most terrifyingly of all, are single lane. There are little give way bays where you pull over if you see headlights coming towards you, I was petrified and always seemed to be the one driving when we encountered them.

We lazed around, went driving, had cooking experiments and watched out our windows; the stunning summer solstice night when the sun was still blaring at 1:30am, the neighbour who was constantly renovating his cottage, the clouds swooping suddenly in and out of the fjords, and the little old lady zipping around on a moto holding leading a tiny dog that was desperately running to keep up with her.

One day we drove out to a little farm in the middle of nowhere off a bumpy dirt road, called Heydalur. There was a big farmhouse, some stables, a few guesthouses and a beautiful hot pot (glacial pool). We sat amongst the rocks and steaming hot water and looked out on the mountains. They also had a hot-house, with beautiful flowers and fruit trees and a swimming pool with slightly cooler glacial water, one side of the shed was a window looking out over the farm and it was like a little paradise. Next to it was also a big stable with Icelandic ponies, which are beautiful with shaggy coats and long pretty manes. One of the guests there said he had seen an arctic fox but we didn’t spot it. We settled for a flying fox instead, which Pete had a lot of fun experimenting with.

We had had some rental car mishaps, first with some damage and then with being overcharged for insurance. Luckily the rental car girl was grossly incompetent, we were refunded and we didn’t have to pay anything extra! And while we were at the airport figuring it out we stopped to watch a plane come in. I was swooped by a bird while we waited, but it was worth it to see the ridiculous entry from the ground. The take off was even more terrifying, the runway points straight towards a huge mountain and the plane just flies full-pelt at it as it rises before pulling to the side at the absolute last minute!

Pretty happy that we weren’t leaving on a plane, we drove out of Isafjordur after four lovely days. Our next stop was a cabin we had rented close to Reykjavik but the drive was slow around the fjords and we would have to stop somewhere else overnight. Through more freaky tunnels and with ridiculous scenery, we drove for hours and hours to Braedavik. Not far out of Isafjordur the road started getting really bad and we were paranoid about destroying the car on the giant chunks of rock, so we crept along. After about 20 minutes of this we got to a sign that said 4WD’s from here on only. We did not have a 4WD and our insurance didn’t cover us on 4WD roads, uh oh. It was with a mixture of relief and incredible frustration when we realised we were on the wrong road. We didn’t have to keep going along this treacherous path, but we had just spent about 25 minutes crawling along and would have to spend another 25 minutes crawling back and this was at the very start of a long day of driving!! But once on the right road we picked up some friendly hitchhikers who cheered us up and we were back on track. We saw a gorgeous waterfall and switched between roads that were paved and overrun with skittish goats and roads that were rocky and slow to traverse. Just before our hotel we stopped at the famous Redsaundar, a “red sand” beach that Icelandic people rave about. We found out later that they get so excited about it because everywhere else in the country the beaches are black sand, so light sand is a real novelty! Less so for us, but the sand was a sparkling dark orange colour and the beach was long and lovely. We leapt about a bit on the deserted beach and even dipped our toes in the freeeeeeeeezing water! Braedavik was a lovely guesthouse with the happiest and friendliest staff ever.

Driving this way had been a little indirect and longer, but there was a reason we came out here. We had wanted to see Redsaunder, but most of all, we wanted to see the Latraborg cliffs. These cliffs are huge and sharp, plunging straight down into surging ocean. They are also the home to more than 1,000 sea birds. And among these birds, are puffins!

We had been told you could get close to the puffins, but that was an understatement. The hilarious penguin-like birds nest right on the edge of the cliff and are very tame, you could probably go up and touch one! But they actually make burrows under the very edge of the cliff so you have to be careful, someone died recently when they walked over a burrow at the very edge, which collapsed and he fell off the edge! But if you get down on your belly you can get up to less than a metre away! They were so cute and weird looking. The cliff was over-run with birds, and covered in poo, feathers and wannabe professional photographers with ridiculous camera equipment. But it was actually a beautiful area and we were stunned at how many of these crazy birds were there. It was very exciting.

One more day of driving and we were at our cabin in Kjos. It was rainy and foggy during the day so we were quick, not stopping to take photos every five minutes!

Kjos is in the middle of nowhere, like everywhere in Iceland I guess. There is a huge lake and holiday houses surrounding it, plus a gorgeous little Kaffi Haus (coffee house). Our cabin was about a ten minute drive from there, on the edge of a smaller lake, with no other houses for miles. The little wooden cottage sat nestled behind bushes so we couldn’t see it from the road, we actually drove right past it. But once you tread down a lush little fairy path you see it, sitting on the edge of lovely big lake teeming with different birds and looking directly at an enormous craggy green mountain dotted with tri-coloured Icelandic ponies. We were hysterical with excitement and jumped around with glee on the giant trampoline (the icing on the cake). The house was cosy, decorated beautifully and put together with care. Our last days in Iceland were spent here and it was the perfect way to end an incredible adventure. We did yoga, cooked, went for walks, drank lots of tea, watched the birds (there was a family of geese with little goslings and this crazy bird that spent all day hovering and then diving violently for fish) and watched David Attenborough documentaries. In one of these documentaries we discovered that the hovering bird was actually an Arctic Turn, that are all over the Arctic! We soon realised it was also the bird that swooped me in Isafjordur; it would seem I got lucky, because in the Arctic the birds swoop polar bears until they are bleeding to protect their eggs! This all just helped solidify the feeling that we were living in a David Attenborough documentary. While there we also watched a movie called Bjarnfredarson, which was more popular than Avatar in Iceland and was the weirdest movie we have ever seen. We cooked a lot, making hommus and babbaganoush, which through hilarious events gave Pete the nickname Hommus Face Pete. We took millions of photos of the sun in different positions, making beautiful reflections of the ridiculous mountains. We ventured into the Kaffi Haus to use the internet only to discover that our Prime Minister had been overthrown! We took midnight showers in broad daylight in the ”summer shower” which was just a pipe in the backyard but made for the most scenic wash I’ve had in a while. We drove out to Thingvellir which is the point where the North American and European tectonic plates meet, the ridge runs all along the ocean floor but is above ground in Iceland, scarring a long line down the whole country. On our last day we had a pancake extravaganza (banana pancakes and crepes) and felt sick afterwards. We played a lot of guitar and there were no neighbours to hear it. On our last night we drank wine by the lake, paddled our feet and jumped on the trampoline. We had to get up super early to drive to Reykjavik airport and catch our plane to England. We were overtired and got into hysterics trying to come up with covert ways to sneak my guitar onto the plane without having to pay more. In the end I just walked on with it and they didn’t say a word. Flying out of the country, we passed over a glacier and pressed our noses to the window to see the gigantic slab of ice from above. We were incredibly sad to leave this ethereal, surprising, crazy country, but it had been such an adventure.

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